Emmitt Smith or Barry Sanders: Who Was the Better Player?

The 1990s presented the NFL with some of the best running backs of all time, including Curtis Martin, Jerome Bettis, Marshall Faulk, Terrell Davis, and Thurman Thomas to name a few. But none of these talented players can claim the same legendary status as Emmitt Smith and Barry Sanders. Both of their stories have sparked debates over the years.

If they cannot be ranked as the best of all time, they can at least rank at number 2 or 3. Other than being electrifying runners with endless highlight tapes, both have countless records and have been voted as MVPs in the NFL. When it comes to the debate of who is better than whom, people tend to have points for either of the two. So let’s look back at the career of both men and make our pick.

Emmitt Smith

Emmitt Smith has some great seasons on his resume. A great example would be his remarkable 1,773-yard season and 25 touchdowns in 1995. A powerful and decisive runner, Smith was remarkably consistent. One aspect of the game that played to his favor was the offense of his team- the Dallas Cowboys.

He would have the skill of a Hall of Fame quarterback and wide receiver to rely on to make the game smooth for him. However, the offense of the Dallas Cowboys was greatly complemented by his skills as a runner. His 1995 season was an iconic one and was a reflection of his greatness throughout his career. 

Barry Sanders

Unlike Emmitt Smith, Barry Sanders made his impact on the history of the NFL while playing for a relatively mediocre team. In fact, he achieved his 2,053-yard season while playing for a 9-7 Lions team. Most refer to him as a guy who could easily turn nothing into something. The way he would start his big runs through a mess in the backfield is still incredible to watch.

He would easily shift his momentum or stop on a dime. While some would refer to his size as a weakness, he could still run people over. His records need little to no explaining, from rushing for 1,000 yards for each season to finding himself on the number three spot for all-time rushing yards in a span of only 10 seasons. 

What held Barry Sanders back?

One aspect that most people criticize Sanders by is the fact that he didn’t take his team to the Super Bowl. But this is understandable since Lions weren’t a championship quality team during Sander’s career.

Others criticize him for leaving the game too soon- he left in his 10th season. If he had stayed for a few more years, he would have likely beaten Smith with regard to the all-time rushing yardage title.

The Verdict

Barry Sanders is the better of the two running backs, objectively. If he had continued playing some more instead of retiring early, he would have ranked even better on the all-time lists.

Not to mention, he didn’t have the same kind of Hall of Fame support like Smith did. If he had played alongside the likes of Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin, the chances are that his stats would be as good as Smith’s. Sure, his teammates, Scott Mitchell, and Herman Moore were amazing players, but they weren’t Hall of Fame-caliber players. 

Both Emmitt Smith and Barry Sanders will be remembered in the history of the NFL for the records that they left behind. But the ‘what if’ that Sanders left behind by retiring early will always be a debatable point.

Perhaps he would have gone on to break more records. In the worst-case scenario, he would have been plagued by injuries. One thing is for sure, both players were incredible talents that will be remembered for years to come.